Liberal MP backtracks after voicing support for resolution critics call a threat to press freedom

Some Liberal MPs say targeting disinformation online should be a priority for the government rather than dismissing a new party policy that's faced criticism.  (Justin Tang/Canadian Press - image credit)
Some Liberal MPs say targeting disinformation online should be a priority for the government rather than dismissing a new party policy that's faced criticism. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press - image credit)

A Liberal MP was scrambling Wednesday to react to a controversial Liberal Party policy proposal that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself dismissed as a bad idea.

Just hours after Trudeau told reporters on Tuesday that the party resolution on combating disinformation — roundly attacked by critics as a threat to freedom of the press — is "not a policy" his government "would ever implement," Liberal MP Julie Dzerowicz tweeted that the policy was one of the top three she voted for the party to prioritize.

Dzerowicz said she hadn't seen Trudeau's comments when she tweeted her support for the resolution, which was passed Saturday at the Liberal convention without any debate, when only about 200 registered members were in the room.

"For me it was really about supporting the policy idea," Dzerowicz told CBC News at 12 p.m. "In that case, misinformation, disinformation is a problem.

"I knocked on 3,500 doors earlier this year. I can tell you people don't know what the truth is. A lot of people are concerned that they might not have access to the facts."

Hours after her original interview, Dzerowicz called CBC News back. She said she had since read the resolution more closely and has a problem with its approach.

"I don't think this is the way to go about dealing with misinformation and disinformation," Dzerowicz said in her second interview.

The "combating disinformation in Canada" resolution calls on the government to "explore options to hold online information services accountable for the veracity of material published on their platforms, and to limit publication only to material whose sources can be traced."

Registered Liberals attending the convention ranked the resolution tenth out of 24 in order of priority.

The resolution is non-binding, which means the government can ignore it altogether. But it becomes official party policy within two weeks and stays on the books for the next eight years.

The Conservatives have said the policy, if adopted, would take the government in a "very dangerous direction" and lead to state-controlled media and censorship.

WATCH/ Conservative MP Rachael Thomas calls Liberal policy resolution 'disheartening'

University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist called it "an enormously problematic resolution" that, if implemented in law, could make journalism in Canada less free. He said the Liberal government "has become increasingly involved in the media space in Canada."

Minister of Labour Seamus O'Regan told CBC News he wasn't happy with the wording of the resolution and would have eliminated the "specific part that talked about tracing sources." He said he wouldn't support legislation that enacted such a measure.

"Policy resolutions are not government policy, nor are they law," said O'Regan. "But they are the voice of what our party members have to say. That particular part about an anonymity for sources — quash it."

O'Regan was asked if it was a mistake to let the resolution become official party policy.

"Hmm, I'll have to think about that," he replied.

CBC News asked the Prime Minister's Office if Trudeau's comment on Tuesday meant he rejects the entire resolution or is open to implementing parts of it.

Ann-Clara Vaillancourt, the lead press secretary at PMO, said Trudeau was "very clear yesterday" that "we would never put a bill forward the way the party proposed it."

Conservative MP Rachael Thomas posted a video on Twitter Tuesday saying Trudeau already "played his hand" with Bill-C11 and Bill-C18, pieces of legislation she said are "all about censoring speech."

Thomas said the Liberal government also employed its "interventionist approach" when, according to documents tabled in Parliament, it asked Facebook and Twitter to remove 214 pieces of social media content between 2020 and 2023.

WATCH | Government won't 'implement' disinformation resolution, PM says:

The resolution calls on the government to "provide additional public funds to support advertisement-free news and information reporting by Canadian media through an arm's-length non-partisan mechanism."

In her first conversation with CBC News Wednesday, Dzerowicz said the reference to an "arm's-length non-partisan mechanism" is "one of the things that appealed" to her. She said it's worth finding out whether the government should be involved in cracking down on disinformation, or if it should be up to journalists and non-governmental organizations to do so.

When she spoke to CBC News at noon, Dzerowicz said she believed the proposal was meant to target online platforms, not journalists.

"It wasn't meant to sort of be attacking journalists and I don't believe there's anything in here that is trying to attack freedom of expression in any way," she said. "The sentiment here is, what are the other options the government should be looking at."

When she spoke to CBC News later in the afternoon, Dzerowicz said she doesn't agree with the resolution's proposal that the government explore limiting "publication only to material whose sources can be traced."

Justice Minister David Lametti said the Liberal Party has embraced many policies that never make their way into election campaign platforms, or take years to do so. He said that back in the 1980s, when he was a young Liberal, making recreational cannabis use legal was a party policy.

"That policy didn't make it into the platform until 2015," said Lametti. "So there's always a complex mix of policies, policy proposals that have been passed at conventions that remain part of the Liberal discussion, if you will."

WATCH/ Justice minister discusses Liberal policy on disinformation

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said grassroots party members are often volunteers who "might not have the insight to really fine-tune" the wording of resolutions.

"My sense is that's part of what happened," she said.

"Oftentimes there's well-meaning resolutions that come from a party that may not be fully thought through, in terms of a policy perspective."